Media Scene

All kidding aside, WSOC’s Tanner is playing through pain

He’s one of the funniest guys in town, wise-cracking his way through rush hours with tens of thousands of listeners who know him well.

They know Rob Tanner because he’s been talking to them about his life for 10 years on the WSOC (103.7) morning show. They know how both mothers-in-law live with him; his wife, Missy; and their two kids. They know last January he went away for the first in a series of operations that began with the removal of a big tumor next to his colon.

What they don’t know about the funny guy on the radio is this: For the past year, he’s been living through the worst pain of his life. Some days it’s hard for him to sit through his whole show.

Managing the pain has become one of the new things of his medicalcentric life since a routine prostate exam led to discovery of the tumor more than a year ago. At first doctors prescribed oxycodone. Now that it has turned into a long-term treatment, they’ve moved to a seven-day patch like those used by people with osteoarthritis.

“The good thing is that since I’ve been high, the ratings have been great,” says Tanner.

Really, there’s nothing comical about the whole thing, which doesn’t seem to stop Tanner or his co-hosts, Guenn Schneider and producer Chris Allen, from joking about it. If they love him, they have a funny way of showing it.

“If I see the laughter is making him hurt, I try to turn it up a little,” says Allen. “Maybe even tickle him.”

Marking job anniversary

Tanner is marking his 10th year in Charlotte broadcasting this month, a long time in a business known for its turnover. He’s among the best – his show is a consistent top-five finisher in Charlotte’s highly competitive morning radio rankings, and some months it finishes No. 1.

He and Paul Schadt at WKKT (96.9 “The Kat”) have one of the longest-running rivalries in the city’s radio business, a gentlemanly, decadelong battle for the ears of Charlotte’s country music listeners. Together, they attract more than 15 percent of radio listeners on any given morning, a huge slice of the market where more than 20 stations of various formats are competing for attention.

Tanner, 51, landed in Charlotte in an unusual way. WSOC’s operations manager D.J. Stout was looking for a new morning host in 2004, and Tanner – then working for a small station in Lakeland, Fla. – had one of the best audition tapes among the dozens Stout was considering.

Stout’s boss, Bill Schoening, happened to be visiting Lakeland. He called Stout to report he’d heard a guy on the radio down there who sounded pretty good. Quite a coincidence, Stout replied. He’d just invited that guy to Charlotte for an interview.

That was the year that multiple hurricanes swept across Florida. Tanner was happy to leave the Sunshine State behind and settled in Charlotte with the family and mothers-in-law all in the same house. They all still get along.

Discovery of tumor

“That’s not supposed to be there,” his doctor told Tanner in May 2012 during a routine prostate check. That’s not the kind of thing you want to hear at a time like that, Tanner says.

Tests showed there was a tumor between Tanner’s rectum and prostate, a rare kind called GIST, for gastrointestinal stromal tumor, and it was in a place where few have ever been found. They usually occur in the stomach.

He went to a specialist in Tampa, Fla., and was operated on last Feb. 3. It was supposed to be three-hour surgery. It lasted more than six.

It was supposed to be a tumor the size of a lemon, Tanner says. It came out the size of a cantaloupe.

“If you do an update a year from now, it will be as big as a basketball,” says Allen, who doesn’t like to be in a room where there’s a serious mood. “It’s like a fish story.”

Tanner goes to top him. “So when they rolled me into the recovery room, there was a lady playing the harp in there. My sister-in-law said, ‘Rob, if you’re alive, and I know you are, there really is a woman here playing a harp. You’re not dead.’”

Tanner: “It hurt like hell to laugh.”

Healing complications

Tanner’s doctors started him on a colostomy bag while they waited for the incision to heal. But he healed too quickly and scar tissue built up around his rectum. A series of operations followed to correct that problem and other complications.

After a year, it appears the colostomy bag might be a permanent sidekick, Tanner says. That’s not so bad. He’s gotten used to it.

But the pain persists. His doctors think the scar tissue may be pushing on a nerve. Whatever it is, waves of pain sometimes rocket across his pelvis.

Despite the public perception, only a small percentage of patients become tolerant and addicted to opiate painkillers. But as a long-term management approach, he’s been switched to a Butrans skin patch to moderate the pain in weeklong doses. Still, he has to take two or three low-dosage tablets daily to address breakthrough pain and is seeing a physician who specializes in such cases.

Latest treatment

Tanner returned to Tampa for his seventh operation in December, to see whether perhaps he could shed the colostomy bag. His doctors there think there’s hope. They’ll know more in the months ahead.

Tanner plans to return to his show on Monday morning after a three-week recovery. He gets a lot of notes and calls from listeners – and even competitors like the morning combo of Ace & TJ on WHQC (“Channel” 96.1) – wishing him well and keeping his spirits up.

Plus, there are friends such as Allen, who notes that when Tanner was out last year for the first operation, various country recording artists sat in for him on the show.

“Scotty McCreery still calls every week asking, ‘Is he still out?’ ” says Allen.

Tanner laughs. He plans to keep plugging. Last year at the holidays, he says he didn’t know if he’d be alive in a year or two. A CAT scan in December shows he’s free of cancer now, pain notwithstanding.

“I’m grateful when I wake up every day,” Tanner says. “I still have it a lot better than 90 percent of the people in this town.”